What kind of authority does the experience of the saints have? Can those who are close to God be wrong in assessing the world or in their understanding of other people’s lives? Looking at the lives of the saints, do we find a notion of infallibility at work? In today’s Orthodoxy, St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), a monk at Mount Athos and later Archbishop of Thessaloniki, belongs among the most frequently cited saints, so let us have a look at what he says on the subject.
St. Gregory Palamas is best known for his defense of the hesychast monks who were given the gift of unceasing prayer and a direct vision of God. He shared monasteries and even hermitages with them, learned ascetic practices from them, grew under their spiritual direction. In other words, Palamas had a long-term experience of a daily contact with those of whom he would say that the gift of grace transformed them into the likeness of God. But he also experienced that these people had their convictions which remained even after the transforming spiritual experience had arrived.
To use an example, St. Theoliptos of Philadelphia was a firm opponent of the Council of Lyons and of reunion with the Roman Catholic Church. Palamas did not see such a conviction as a consequence of the closeness to God. Rather, it belonged to the realm in which human faculties such as reason, emotions, or will operated. While this has not been a view unanimously agreed upon by the Fathers, for Palamas there was no direct continuity between the human faculties and divine illumination, not even when the human faculties were used in contemplation. The direct knowledge of the saints was a result of a very different dynamics. It came as a grace, as being transformed by the uncreated deifying light, and as seeing all that is in this light. This kind of seeing, in some cases including kardiognosis, the seeing of the heart of others, was something other than a discursive knowledge. For Palamas, the “wisdom from outside” was not reducible to the “wisdom from inside” either before or after divine illumination. If people tried to do that, the deifying light escaped.
Palamas’s prime interest lay in demonstrating that and how people in the present life could “share in the eschatological glory of the Kingdom of God, and receive the pledge of the vision of Him ‘face to face.’’’ In his theological defense of the holy hesychast monks he differentiated between the divine essence, which remained inapproachable, and the divine energies, in which those found worthy by God could have a share. Drawing on the Johannine imagery, Palamas linked incarnation and deification. In continuity with the earlier Greek Fathers, he explained that God descends “from His own sphere” in order to raise us up “from our low estate.” He added that already in this life, to “a limited extent…so far as was right,” through the relationship with Christ, human mortal nature could participate in “the uncircumscribed.” In saints such participation was permanent. Looking at the saints, one could see how being made receptive of the deifying grace looks, the plurality of ways in which they grew into the likeness of God, and the different degrees and expressions of permanence of that transformation taking place already on this side of the eschaton.
Two things were important here. First, the closer people were to God, the more they were aware of their own inadequacy. This is why the great saints often considered themselves to be the worst sinners. They could see that in the deifying light. They could see how much they still needed to change. Infallibility would fit very oddly with such an insight. Second, while being led by the Spirit to transcend themselves and to perceive with their inner senses not only God, but in God also the “inner principles of created things,” they understood that such “simple and indivisible knowledge” was not something that could render them infallible in conceptual knowledge, in political, moral, or even theological views, in what might be termed the “right forms” of social and economic interaction. The kind of divinely-granted knowledge remained irreducibly different. It was inseparably joined to the direction of the gaze of the saints towards God. Palamas said that the power of the Spirit not only penetrated their faculties, but moved them to focus on things “which are beyond us.” Furthermore, their reading of the gospels helped them realize that knowing the details of how the things of God evolve in time and space was something at times hidden to Christ in his earthly life. Paul was wrong in his early assessment of when the second coming of Christ will take place. St. Polycarp or St. Ignatius of Antioch thought that it was impossible to hold a Christian faith without millennialism. St. Irenaeus was convinced that Christ died as an old man. St. Francis of Assisi believed that his preaching of Christ would convert a sultan to a Christian faith. St. Symeon the New Theologian assumed that bishops and priests could lose the authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins—and we could go on.
We can rightly criticize Palamas’s theology for not giving enough space to philosophy and other forms of creativity. We can rightly criticize his practice as falling short of his own insights, especially when it came to relationships to those whom he opposed. Here Palamas’s theology can be understood also as a critique of some of his own positions. Still, we can gratefully learn from him about holiness, about the uncreated grace giving people a direct vision of God and transforming them permanently by that experience. And we can, indeed, learn from him also about not mistaking the authority of the experience of the saints with infallibility in all things. When human assumptions (about God, about other people, about the world) are given an eschatological authority, it is, according to Palamas, a sign of regression in the proximity of God. The permanence of deifying grace does not exclude the permanent need for purification on the human side. On the contrary, without ongoing purification, in which all human faculties need to participate, people are more vulnerable to assuming that they can use the experience of the divine for their own ends. Ongoing purification, on the other hand, makes them realize that the grace of God has no part in such attempts.
Ivana Noble is a Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Charles University in Prague and a former President of Societas Oecumenica. She has published widely on Orthodox theology and spirituality and headed a project on Orthodoxy in the West.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.